"Life can only be understood backward. But it must be lived forward."
Father's Day. My own father died in 1939. Now, in 2004, I am an old man, by any reckoning: 82 and not given to memory, except as a strict discipline, when I am trying to see what went right, what went wrong. Freud said, in effect, that the greatest loss in any man's life is the loss of his father. Freud seems less important these days. Yet I still lie in bed each morning remembering my dreams to stay in touch with myself, and then I spend a luxurious few minutes of memory and reflection to prepare for living the rest of the day: Here and Now. During that time I am often gazing at the portrait of my father on the wall beyond the foot of my bed, and wondering why I did not know him better.
He is a lion. I sit on his lap and rub my fingers over the golden stubble of his cheeks, my 2-year-old hand closer and closer through his two-day-old bristles, nearer and nearer to his tightly grinning mouth, which he suddenly opens and snaps sideways at my fingers. His suit is black, his hair sunlight red. He dazzles me but stands me down, tired of the game. Tired of me.
He was already middle-aged. Born in 1875. A veteran of the Spanish-American War, which he and his father went to as foot soldiers. His mother had died and left him and his father adrift, to wander, to join the army, to escape Salisbury, N.C., where there seemed nothing left for them. But in 1924 he has a wife of 24 years, four daughters, three other sons and me, the fourth and last son and child. He's had too many children.
We are going to the real-estate boom in Florida. But first we go up to North Carolina to tell his father goodbye and give him another chance to go with us. The old man sits on the porch with his cane and his dog. He wants me to feel the nub of his finger, shot off in the Civil War when he a boy of 12 carrying the flag. My father drags me across the porch screaming and makes me touch the nub so I will remember what the Yankees did.
It seems totally unlikely in this century that my grandfather was a flag boy in the Civil War. And it seems both wicked and improbable that two grown men should have made a 3-year-old scream so. Of course my father wanted me to do what his father wanted. My tears did not, apparently, seem so important to a man who had seen so many of his children cry.
Florida: There are orange trees in the yard, a lemon tree, a kumquat tree, a tangerine tree, spiky plants and a wire fence between me and a little girl next door, who is so adorable that I have tried to climb the fence to play in her sand pile with her and am stuck near the top. Suddenly hands with red-gold hair grab my waist and lift me down. My father laughs at me but approves of my adventure and ambition. The little girl has run into her house.
It seems strange to me that I have never been able to throw away a small photograph of me and that little girl standing in a boat, tilted at an angle on a two-wheeled trailer. She is holding onto me and I am laughing. She is wearing a jumper, and my khaki shorts are buttoned to my khaki shirt with big buttons to hold them up. Every time I start to discard the picture, I remember the quote that precedes William Maxwell's Time Will Darken It, in which the painter Francisco Pacheco advises a bright tint for a picture "because time will darken it." And so paint bright the memory of my father.
My father takes me to buy a pony. All my brothers have had ponies and now it's my turn. The pony is big, not a Shetland, and the owner says it is too big, but my father puts me on it anyway, and after one quick circle around the track the pony throws me off. My father and the man laugh loudly until my father sees my tears. He does not say a word as he takes me back to my mother. I hate him.
When I saw a child spanked in a grocery store, I saw the fury shaking his entire body. A few minutes later I saw him happily eating ice cream with the same parent, I know, from my own experience, the child wished dead 10 minutes before. Sometimes, though, I see a boy glare at the back of a parent's head with an anger that will last. I must have been, like him, a glaring child who proudly promised himself never to forget his hatred. But hatred, too, fades.
In Florida, my father has an idea to negotiate a deal to sell the advertising rights to the Gandy Bridge -- the huge, new toll bridge that connects St. Petersburg to Tampa -- to Ford Motor Company. His scheme is to bring the Ford advertising men together with the majority bond holders of the Gandy. He wants Ford to use pictures of the toll bridge and the slogan: "Fords Go Free." It is family legend that Ford's advertising men are tempted but finally say no. In any case, he has made a million dollars in land deals from his office. But in 1927 he has lost it all and more.
In a few days we will roll up an expensive Turkish carpet, tie it on top of the Studebaker touring car and leave everything to the creditors. I want to ride on one of the fold-down opera seats but am heartbroken when my sisters beat me to them. He picks me up afterwards and says I can sit next to him as we drive home.
In my career of teaching creative writing at the University of North Carolina I have seen that in student stories it is important to the young writer where the family sat in the car. To sit up front between parents is the prized place. To get the seat at the front passenger's window is a rite of passage, a growing up.
We are home in South Carolina and a man from the bank drives a stake in front of our brick house with a sign on it. All the children in the neighborhood come to look at the new sign and one or two grown-ups stop. I am happy at so much attention. My mother comes out of the house and the children scatter as always. She reads the notice, pulls up the stake, breaks it across her knee and throws it into the middle of the street. She yanks me by the arm into the house and switches me with a peach switch for reading the sign to the children. I am screaming, "I didn't. I can't read!" She calms down before my father comes to lunch. Even so she points at me and says, "This little dunce read it to everyone in the neighborhood."
She keeps saying this is our house, and on that dreadful day, even though I try with all my might, I cannot think of ever moving.
My mother could switch us when she wanted to, but she would not allow my father to touch us because, as she always claimed, "Men do not understand how strong they are."
A circus has stranded itself in our small town on land owned by my father, his partner and some other men. The circus also owes my father for straw. He takes me up to the circus grounds where the tents are being loaded on wagons pushed by the two elephants. In a ring are miniature horses, with red plumes blowing in the wonderful-smelling breeze. I sit on a rail in total awe and admiration. My father is talking to the man about one of the horses, who is blind in one eye and can no longer be used in the show. They shake hands on a deal. My father comes over, shows me the half-blind horse up so close I can pat it. He asks would I like to own it, to take it home. I breathe so deep I cannot let out my breath. I want the little horse more than I have ever wanted anything. He cannot mean it. It must be a joke. He and the circus man must be ready to laugh at me. I say no. He stares at me and doesn't say a word all the way back to the car. All the way home. In my mind, he will never speak to me again.
I press my lips together and my eyelids to keep the tears from flowing. With my eyes shut I see the sweet black horse with the red plumes between its sharp, alert ears.
Now it seems that was the beginning of our long estrangement. I think of Emily Dickinson: It's such a little thing to weep -- /So short a thing to sigh -- /And yet -- by Trades -- the size of these/We men and women die!
My father and I obviously did not die at that moment, but some bond did, and it seems to me we were never again comfortable alone together. Even at the table, the family's happiest times, we did not glance at each other.
My father loves fine things: cars, horses, houses, furniture, paintings, and has traded in all. Here in the dark days of the Depression he cannot resist buying me a cashmere overcoat for $11. I put it on and despise myself in the mirror. All the other boys have short corduroy jackets with zippers. How I want something with a zipper on it! In this coat I will be a spectacular fool. I pull it off so fast the sleeves turn inside out. He and my mother argue. He can probably get his money back. He knows we need other things more. Certainly he himself needs not to work such long days. He has chest pains and denies it is his heart. No, he won't spend money to go to a doctor.
These days I have zippers on my pants and jackets, and a cashmere blazer. But those material things are not important. How one's values change! I've even abandoned my father's belief in the value of work. (An old student, from 40 years ago, recently came by and reminded me that I used to say about everything but writing: "Nothing is worth doing well." He said he understands now that he is 60. I have to tell him I have shortened it to: "Nothing is worth doing.")
In spite of his angina, my father has helped my brother Mills convert our four-car garage into a studio for painters where, every night, 10 local artists set up their easels and paint studies of a live model. Often my father poses for them when no other model is to be found. In the daytime my father sits while my brother works silently on a portrait of him, a portrait of a man in great pain from his heart and now from stomach ulcers. His pain does not show in the life-size oil. My brother's splendid, accurate painting almost breaks into a smile. My father is jubilantly proud of it and invites anyone back to see it. I can do nothing to earn such pride.
Portraits seem to have been essential in our family, even during the years when we were most broke. In dysfunctional families do portraits take the place of memories?
I suppose it was what used to be called puppy love. My senior year I can think only of an auburn-haired, freckled-faced girl with a broad smile I cannot resist. All day I know I will be seeing her at a party that night. As I shine my shoes and look for black socks without holes, I am aware of a commotion downstairs. When I go down what alarms me most is that there are bed pillows on the sofa in our living room. Pillowcases in our living room! That is what seems impossible and unheard of, not the fact that my father is stretched out moaning and my mother is rubbing his arm and chest. He is moaning: "I can't stand it any longer!" My mother turns and says to me. "Help!" I want to remind her of the party but she says, "You have to help." "What do I do?" I ask. "Can't you see," she whispers, "he's having a heart attack!"
She has to tell me whom to phone and what to say to the doctor. And yet I have told the wonderful girl I would be seeing her at the party. What will she think when I don't show up?
Now it seems as if it were a black-and-white movie: I watch the doctor rolling up my father's sleeve and giving him an injection, and later the ambulance arriving. Surely I had some feeling, but it does not show in the face of the 17-year-old boy. On the other three faces there is only fear.
My mother is all in black: shoes, stockings, silk dress and borrowed hat with a thick veil. At the funeral, the minister, who did not know my father, rambles on and in a prayer says: "This tragedy, which has struck this town of 30,000 people, Lord! . . . "
I almost laugh, thinking, "29,999 at this moment, God . . . "
My mother does not let me forget that I almost laughed at my own father's funeral. Years later she forgave me, I suppose, by saying to a neighbor, while looking at me: "You know, people sometimes laugh instead of crying. It's the worst kind of grief."
In college I take two classes in horseback riding: the dressage class taught by an old cavalry officer and the trail riding taught by his daughter. Deep in the woods she leads the class down a steep incline, over a creek and up a sharper incline. My horse, Rusty, who before today has seemed to have five legs, refuses the reins and jumps from one steep bank to the other. The instructor says, "Good going!" and points out to the other riders how beautifully I kept my seat. I am inexplicably sad all day and depressed throughout the week.
Why did I not see why I worked afternoons in a grocery store cutting rotten spots out of cabbages to earn the money for horseback riding? Why did I not see that I was crushed because my father had not seen me take that leap?
Mills and I are home from the war; he is now a well-known professional portrait photographer. The first thing he does is take an Eastman Color photograph of the oil painting he did of my father. He has the copies framed in expensive Italian frames to give to each member of the family. I keep mine in a footlocker that goes back to UNC with me. I do not hang it in my room.
The photographs, too, are almost life-size, and I am thankful the eyes do not follow me about the room, but rather seem to be staring at a point just beyond my shoulder. Did my brother want our father to be forever gazing over our shoulders at things that we cannot see?
I have, at the birth of both my sons, declared that I would tell them every day at a time when I was most aware, and totally sincere, that I love them. And as they learn to make sentences, they tell me they love me.
My sons and I live hundreds of miles apart but we end every telephone call with the acknowledgment that we love each other. It is not a perfunctory statement. It is enough and it is sustaining.
The day I become a full professor with tenure, I buy plants for my office on campus and hang the picture of my father. My students know immediately that he is my father. Years later other students think it may be me when I was younger. An older sister has died, and I hang her photograph of him in a back hall at home and explain to my young sons that he is my father in the same way I am their daddy. They never seem very interested.
My father, my mother, and all my brothers and sisters are gone. My sons are a continent away. Only paintings and photographs are left. Now I have eight portraits in oil and watercolors of four generations of my family hanging on the walls. When I go to look at retirement homes, I find in my mind a place for each painting. I seldom look directly at the images, yet they comfort me.
It is the Bicentennial, and I try to emphasize to my class how really new and experimental this amazing nation is. I remember my grandfather with his nub of a finger on the porch of his house. "My grandfather," I say, "shook hands with a man who shook hands with George Washington." A deep voice in the back of the classroom says, "I never did hear anyone go so far to drop a name."
Bastards really do sit on the back seats.
During my years of teaching, I have become intrigued by the absence of the father in student writing and in American literature. I ask a guest lecturer, the columnist Harry Golden, about it, and he says it is because in America, society is the father, and man does battle with society.
I begin assigning Kafka's famous 40-page accusing and accepting letter to his father, which he never mailed. The letter is perhaps the most open and accessible of all of Kafka's work I have read. He shows his father his bare heart.
I often ask students how many have been told by their fathers that he loves them. Many girls and few boys say yes. The same is true when I ask how many have said to their fathers, "I love you." The girls yes, the boys few. Soon many students choose, instead of a third, required story, to write letters to their fathers.
A good many students have told me years later that writing those letters to their fathers was the most important thing they did in college. One father has written to thank me.
To begin the new century I have the walls of my condo painted. It is a way of saying to myself, at least, if not to my sons, that I will not go to a retirement home. In the redecoration, I move the picture of my father from a dim hallway, where I had thought it would fade less, to the wall beyond the foot of my bed. He is the first thing that I see each morning.
The portrait of my father is fading fast. The hair is now pale yellow, not orange-red, or golden, as it was among the tangerine and lemon trees of my childhood, and the ruddy face is white. Sometimes in the earliest dawn light it is a skull, but if I wake later it is a ghost. Fully awake and in the morning sunlight, I see my own face in the portrait, as my students did. And in it now I also see the lifetime of yearning.
Max Steele was head of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina, 1966-1987, and an adviser at The Paris Review and Story magazine.